23 May 2009

‘Happiness’ + ‘Mary Stuart’ = More Happiness

Hunter Foster & Sebastian Arcelus in Happiness
at Lincoln Center Theater

The last time I was in New York, Scott Frankel was too busy preparing his new show, Happiness, to see me. Now the show has opened and I’m able to see it, but Scott is still busy, writing the music for another new show. Ultimately, I bought a ticket to the Wednesday matinée and went on my own to Happiness, and that turns out to be an exemplary (if not ideal) way to take in its lessons. The critics weren’t wrong who complained that John Weidman’s book held too few surprises, and at times it’s sentimental: harried New Yorkers, both the audience and the characters onstage, are hardwired to resist that sort of thing. Yet alone in the dark, our defenses crumble, and we succumb. Yeah, we can admit it: the happiest moments of our lives may well have been corny, too. We do recognize ourselves up there. (Especially insofar as the show concerns a stalled subway car.) I sniffled away contentedly.

For a long time, I hated to go to the theater by myself. Almost any other entertainment, it seemed, was better suited to solitude. It has taken me years to understand that live theater fills in all the spaces around me, and I am never alone, so long as there are actors and audience nearby. That’s why I wasn’t much distressed (much) by the shocking discovery that Feldstein, that inveterate anglophile, didn’t want to join me for Mary Stuart the same evening. Rather than try to argue with him, I tucked my head in and, like the Little Red Hen, did it myself. That he missed a great evening of art is his problem, not mine.

Identical cousins? Walter and McTeer
as Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart

As a high-school German student, I read (or tried to) Schiller’s play, but it was and has remained more familiar to me in Donizetti’s operatic adaptation, a spiffy vehicle for Beverly Sills (and, more recently, Joyce DiDonato). This was my first opportunity to experience the spoken Mary Stuart onstage, and my appetite was whetted by the participation of Janet McTeer (who won every award in the world several years ago in Ibsen’s Doll’s House, though I somehow missed that show) in the title role and Harriet Walter as Elizabeth. The play works brilliantly without Donizetti’s help, and Schiller presents the court intrigues more efficiently than Shakespeare does in comparable dramas. McTeer managed to make Mary’s speeches seem spontaneous, like emotional outbursts instead of rhetorical exercises; while Walter managed a somewhat opposite effect, making of even her most heartfelt statements a carefully crafted public pronouncement. We see at once that only one of these conflicting queens is really suited to her job, and that only one will prevail; the tragedy unfolds irresistibly from that central point, and we’re unable to look away.

It’s widely assumed, and possibly true, that English actors are better trained and by nature better equipped than Americans to enact this sort of story, but I was immensely pleased to see John Benjamin Hickey (from Plano, Texas, and a former workout buddy of mine in New York) deliver a beautifully shaded, witty performance as the Earl of Leicester.

Joanna Gleason (center) defines not only Happiness
but also Fabulousness

Like Scott’s previous New York venture, the much-lauded Grey Gardens, Happiness is full of surprises, and in both shows the greatest surprise may be that anything so quirky has made its way to the professional stage. (Hey, kids! Let’s put on a show ... about dead people!) This is a refreshing contrast with 98 percent of the rest of musical theater these days: you don’t leave the show feeling as if you’ve stepped in bubblegum that won’t be scraped from your heel. I admired the cast (especially three radiant divas, Joanna Gleason, Phyllis Somerville, and Jenny Powers); director/choreographer Susan Stroman kept the stage swirling, and music director Eric Stern can’t be outshone. Though in several numbers Michael Korie’s lyrics take precedence over Scott’s music, it’s only when Scott cuts loose that the show really comes together. “Golden Ladder” and several pitch-perfect period pieces testify best to this composer’s ability to tell a story, and I’m hopeful that his next projects will afford him more such opportunities. We need his brand of musical theater.

For my part, I need theater — period — and I couldn’t be more pleased to have spent my Wednesday alone in the dark.

Royals Take a Bow: Walter & McTeer


Juan Miguel said...

I simply can´t wait for entering in a real Broadway theatre and the thing is that I´m perfectly conscious of how magical is going to be that moment for me. I invite you to have a look to my blog if you´d like: www.lamusicadelanoche.blogspot.com

William V. Madison said...

Never mind how long this post ran with one of the actors misidentified. Let it be known that the guy in Happiness is Hunter Foster. Sutton Foster is his sister. The resemblance ends there.

(God, I am so embarrassed.)